“Openness may not disarm prejudice, but it’s a good place to start,” wrote former Celtic Jason Collins in a recent Sports Illustrated article. As the first active professional athlete to come out of the closet, Collins chose to share his sexuality with the world in a calm, unapologetic, and visible way – leaving the door wide open for others to follow his lead.
He cites the recent events of the Boston Marathon as what spurned him to share his story with the world. “Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?” His three-page article reads more like an eloquent letter to the world, at times emotional, at times explanatory, and always thoughtful. It has garnered attention from national and international media.
Many reports have noted that this is a civil rights movement, which of course it is. Some are venturing to make a comparison between Jason Collins and Jackie Robinson, and in a certain way, they are on to something; Collins’ coming out is the first step on a journey towards LGBTQ equality in organized sports, much like Robinson’s success on the Dodgers paved the way for the desegregation of the MLB. One important distinction to make, however, is that segregation was not limited to the field when Jackie started playing baseball – the bigotry was felt just as strongly in the stands and on the streets. The timing of Collins’ revelation is certainly related to the current atmosphere. “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003,” he writes. “The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted.”
The fact remains, however, that professional basketball, like other mens’ sports in the U.S., is still viewed as a masculine pursuit. The problem here is that many (I hesitate to say most) people, fans and players alike, equate masculinity with heterosexuality. Therefore, when assumedly-straight Jason Collins bravely admits that he is (and always has been) attracted to men during his twelve-year career in the NBA, this causes a unique reaction: fans reflect back on Collins’ career and think: “Wait, this guy was gay the whole time? And he’s actually a talented player? What does this mean?” Inevitably, current and/or former teammates are thinking, “Was he sneaking a peek in the shower?” This re-evaluation is another deviation from the Jackie Robinson comparison; Collins’ coming-out is more like the equivalent of a wildly fictitious situation in which, after fourteen years of playing for the Yankees in an all-white MLB, Babe Ruth reveals that he is, in fact, an African American.
I make the preceding comparison not to belittle the monumental achievements of Jackie Robinson (sidenote: go see 42, it’s incredible), I am simply highlighting the sudden immediacy of Collins’ situation, one that will cause many to reconsider the player’s lengthy career. The next few days will bring a panoply of reactions from across the country and the globe, from twelve-year-olds with Tumblrs to fellow athletes and world leaders. An impressive list of famous Twitter-users (Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, and Russell Simmons, to name a few), have already tweeted their support. Some, like a famous athlete who-needs-not-be-named (and has since redacted his ignorant tweet) will react with disdain.
So how do we move forward? If we have learned anything from Jason Collins’ article (please, go read it now if you haven’t already), it’s the importance of creating an accepting environment for all. Doing so means eliminating the need for LGBTQ individuals to hide who they are. Collins emotionally captures how many closeted people feel in a repressive environment: the implicit pressure to act straight, the perception that we are burdening our family and friends, and the haunting fear that we will be outed. The bravery to come out can be hard to muster, especially for a professional athlete, but with great risk will come great reward: Collins celebrates the triumphs of a now-out person, like his hopes to have a family, his power as a role model to help others, and his understanding that “gay” is just one of the many words that describe him, not the only one.
Athletes of the world, hear my plea: to our straight teammates, please join the likes of Brendon Ayanbadejo and Donte Stallworth and emerge as allies. Showing support for your fellow athletes is the first step in creating a positive and compassionate environment, both on and off the field. To all LGBTQ athletes, as hard as it might seem, please take that first step. You are standing on the threshold, and Jason Collins has kindly left the door ajar for you. Do it for yourself, do it for your family, do it for your teammates, and do it for the millions of sports fans out there, some of whom are struggling with their own sexuality. The world needs more positive gay role models, and you could be one.
One more request, this time for the Beantown residents: when Jason Collins comes to march in our Pride Parade on June 8th, please give him an extra-friendly Boston welcome and thank him for jump-starting this very important movement.
For more information on being an athlete and an ally, check out the You Can Play project, a Boston-based initiative supported by college and professional athletes around the country.